It’s been a long day for Sharon* and it isn’t yet 10 in the morning.
She roused from a fitful sleep on a leather mattress, a fortress of shopping carts shielding her and two others from the harsh elements.
They had just spent the night in an enclave in an unused building near downtown Langley.
The ink-black sky opened up before midnight, and rain tumbled down into the early morning hours.
While many likely enjoyed the soft, rat-a-tat sound of raindrops drumming on their bedroom windows, the rain was anything but soothing for Sharon and the hundreds without permanent shelter in the Langleys.
Veteran outreach worker Fraser Holland checked in, and promptly made a “coffee run.”
He was handed a tattered coupon for a free coffee.
Holland didn’t use it.
He returned with a hot chocolate for Leanne, who looked to be in her early- to mid-20s, a “double double” for Sharon, and a coffee with one cream and 10 sugars for a thin young man wearing a hoodie.
The bearded man with a tussle of long hair that hung over his eyes wasn’t in a conversational mood and quickly departed on a mountain bike.
Sharon shared her story, provided her real name and surname wasn’t used.*
She’s 56 and has spent the better part of the past 10 years on the street.
Sharon said she and her partner have lived in three apartments over the past decade and each time were “kicked out” because, she said, her partner “does scrap metal and bottles.”
She said she takes on a maternal role with other homeless in the community.
“It’s just part of who I am,” she said. “Even when I had money, I was still the same way.”
Sharon’s journey has had many twists and turns. She said she owned a house in South Langley roughly 15 years ago, but health issues and family tragedy pushed her onto the street.
“You don’t end up out here because you want to be here, that’s for sure,” Sharon said. “It [life] snowballed and I just didn’t care anymore. I didn’t give a damn about nothing.”
Not only is Sharon without a home, she said she has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).
“It usually hits older people but because I’ve had drug issues in my life, it’s come earlier,” Sharon said.
“I’m praying that I’ll see my 57th birthday. Right now I’ve got a white blood cell count reading of 83 per 100; it’s supposed to be 32 to 36. I should be in the hospital but I won’t go to the hospital because I think if I go to the hospital I’m going to die.”
Sharon began to cry.
“All I want is a place to live, and nobody will rent to us because they think we’re underlings, we’re not good like they are,” Sharon said, her voice rising, filled with emotion. “We’re not good enough to live in a place.”
Due to poor health, Sharon said when she works one day, she has to sleep for the next two.
“I still try to work every day. Do something, at least try to do something,” she said. “It’s really hard. My legs ache continuously. My bones are just aching and aching and aching.”
Shelter is available at the Gateway of Hope (GOH) on the Langley Bypass, but Sharon doesn’t believe the GOH is doing enough to help women originally from the community.
“The shelter’s done no good for anybody,” she said. “There’s 10 beds for women… and those beds are filled every night, not with girls from Langley. They’re [occupied by] people from other areas. Even if you wanted to be in there, you’re treated like you are in jail.”
After saying goodbye to Sharon, Holland drove to the nearby Langley Vineyard parking lot, where Quincy and Teresa were snacking on donuts.
Quincy has called Langley home for the past 25 years, and said he’s lived on the street for 10 years, “off and on.”
“I’ve had places inside,” he said, in a gravely tone. “But out here it’s getting harder to live outside, too.”
Teresa said she’ll be homeless four years in May. Like many others, she spent the previous night braving the rain, under a tarp, trying to stay dry.
“We had to rebuild the tarp all night long,” she said.
“And your clothes get soaking wet because the water pours on you.”
Teresa said she was coming off three hours of broken sleep.
“It’s really tough,” she said, about braving inclement weather overnight. “People get ornery and miserable and you’ve got to go walking around because you can’t stand to be near them.”
Quincy offered, “and bylaw takes your stuff and then you’re screwed because you have nothing to keep yourself dry.”
The homelessness cycle is nearly impossible to break. Teresa said: “You can’t get a job if you live on the street. You can’t get up [and work] every day after not sleeping every night. Whether you use drugs or not, that has nothing to do with living out here on the street.”
She said a lot of homeless do drugs to stay awake, so they “won’t get ripped off at night while they’re sleeping.”
Teresa shared that her family was quite wealthy and that she lived in a upper class neighbourhood in North Delta, adding that she worked until she was 38.
That’s when she suffered a broken back in a car accident.
“I can’t work in any construction trades anymore,” she said.
A familiar face is Holland, who has been a conduit to Langley’s homeless for the past 10 years, and manages Langley’s outreach program.
Langley’s team of outreach workers help the community’s homeless with their most pressing issues, “with the hopes that small connections and successes will lead to bigger ones,” Holland explained.
According to a report in the monthly magazine Megaphone, at least 46 homeless people died in B.C. in 2014 – a 70 per cent increase from the year before and the highest on record in a single year.
Megaphone published its second report on homeless deaths in B.C., Still Dying on the Streets, using the latest data from the BC Coroners Service.
Locally, 362 local people were at risk last year – these are folks counted as having no permanent home.
“The 362 are coming in contact with us,” Holland said. “They’re either coming into our office, and we’re running into them in the community and we’re talking and working with them enough that we’ll do an intake package.”
The faces of the local homeless is constantly in flux.
“There are some people we’ve seen consistently through the years,” Holland said. “And there’s always brand-new people.”
Holland paused reflectively when asked if it’s hard not to take his job home with him.
“For me, there’s always a piece that worries, that always has that in consideration,” he said.
The profile of homelessness is changing, from an alarmingly high number of seniors to young people. There were 162 youths in Langley last year who were at risk of becoming homeless, and 49 out on the street.
To address local homelessness, the City recently formed the Langley Homelessness Task Force.
The task force – made up of local service providers (including Stepping Stone), businesses, BC Housing, Fraser Health, the RCMP, municipal departments, City councillors, and a Township councillor – spearheads a process that will lead to the creation of a Homelessness Strategic Plan (HSP).
Holland said a draft plan is under review.
“Within that plan there’s all kinds of different pieces, different approaches,” Holland said, adding, “I think looking at the housing continuum in general is something that needs to be done. I think in any community that’s got a homeless plan that’s functioning, there’s different types of housing.”
This doesn’t just include subsidized housing, he explained. It also includes housing with staffing involved to add stability.
Sharon said the City is tackling homelessness from the wrong angle.
“The solution to them is just get rid of everybody,” she said. “That’s not possible. I have a right to be in this town; I’ve lived here for 35 years. My parents are buried here, my brother is buried here, my grandparents are buried here. Are you telling me I’m not part of this town? I don’t think so.”
City council has endorsed the Langley Homelessness Strategic Plan. The top priorities:
1. Create a partnership agreement between the City and Township
2. Form a homelessness action table
3. Form a homelessness integration team
4. Increase the number of rent supplements in Langley
5. Support Integrated intervention approaches in housing and health
6. Form a Fraser Valley homelessness table
“The strategic plan alone will not solve homelessness in the community,” said Mayor Ted Schaffer.
The Plan will now be forwarded to the City of Langley Public Safety Advisory Committee.